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Hailed as the "Sicilian Gandhi," Danilo Dolci was born at
Sesana, near Trieste, in 1924, son of a Sicilian father and a Slovenian
mother. By the time of his death, in 1997, he had seen the face of Sicily
change considerably, and could justly recognize his own contributions to the process. Into the 1970s, he was the single most important
force for improvement in horrendous social conditions rooted in centuries
of exploitation by ruthless landlords, dishonest government officials, corrupt
police and, worst of all, the omnipresent black hand of the Mafia. These
were the elements that had shaped the very fabric of Sicilian society --a
world then more "closed" than it is today. It has become stylish
--almost trendy-- for politicians and journalists to speak out against the
Mafia, with movies, fashion, books and even "Mafia tours" spawned
by a newly-profitable "Mafia industry," but in the 1950s and 1960s
that was far from the case. On one occasion, for example, the offices of
a newspaper were bombed in retaliation for publishing the word "Mafia."
On another, a member of Palermo's city council (a nobleman associated with
a leftist party) was beaten by thugs for having sought, by voting against
changes to the local building code, to impede the destruction of some local
architectural landmarks so that Mafioso friends of several infamous politicians (mayors and senators) could erect ugly structures in their stead in the Via Libertà
district. This was the public "official" side of organized crime,
but widespread poverty and the countless corpses that littered the countryside
were the part that Dolci fought daily. In those days, the leadership of the Catholic Church
in Sicily sometimes seemed to ignore the existence of the Mafia, and
clerics rarely spoke out against organized crime or against other social
ills. As a social activist, Dolci's story begins in post-war Sicily, but
it is worth recounting the events that brought him here.
Raised in Fascist Italy, Danilo Dolci studied architecture and engineering
and was a promising student. He was not very "political" in the
sense of being associated with a particular political party, but as a young
man was arrested by northern Italy's Fascists (of Mussolini's Republic of
Salò) for tearing down Fascist propaganda posters. It was 1943, and
he refused to enlist in the doomed army of the Republic of Salò.
This was one of the first clear indictions that Dolci detested violence
in any form. Though never a full-time partisan, he certainly hated Fascism.
A pacifist? Perhaps.
Despite widespread public impressions, he was neither a Communist nor
overtly anti-clerical. He was an activist, pure and simple. Following the
war, he initially supported some charities sponsored by the Catholic Church.
He had been to Sicily briefly in the early 1940s, when his father worked
for the railroad here. But it was during a subsequent visit to Sicily's
Greek archeological sites that he became acutely aware of what can only
be described as squalid rural poverty. This meant towns without electricity,
running water or sewers, peopled by impoverished citizens living --or barely
surviving-- on the edge of starvation: largely illiterate and unemployed,
suspicious of the state and ignored by their Church. The young Dolci sought
to address problems that few others were willing even to recognize, much
less confront. In the 1950s, despite continuing mass emigration from northern
Italy as well as Sicily, it took courage to write about the nation's failure
to provide opportunities for its least fortunate citizens, or a self-governing
region's abuse of public funds literally stolen by politicians associated
directly with the Mafia. Yet, Dolci did so with eloquence, despite constant
threats from corrupt law-enforcement authorities (he was incarcerated for
crimes such as "libel" of public officials) and open contempt
from the Catholic Church (longtime Palermo archbishop Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini publicly denounced
Dolci and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusi, author of The Leopard, for "defaming" all Sicilians) for drawing attention to terrible situations most Sicilians knew to exist but were reluctant to openly acknowledge.
Dolci's social center attracted attention on a global scale, prompting many to compare him to Martin Luther King. Like Doctor King, Dolci was a charismatic
character whose movement appealed to socially-conscious young people around
the world, some of whom came to Sicily to work with him. Yet, Dolci's blunt,
pragmatic message was rarely a convenient or flattering one. That this made
many Sicilians, and their diaspora abroad, slightly uncomfortable, never
hindered his efforts, unique for their time. As a humanitarian, he created
public works programs, investigated public corruption and generally assisted
the poorest people of northwestern Sicily, attempting to improve their living
conditions while using Partinico and Trappeto as his main bases. The Jato
Dam was one such project. As a humanist, he published extensively and brought
popular attention to the humblest citizens of a very slowly evolving society,
earning praise around the world. Danilo Dolci was twice nominated for the
Nobel Prize and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the funds from which
were used to establish a string of social centers to address the needs of
poor families. Among those who publicly voiced support for his efforts were
Carlo Levi, Erich Fromm, Bertrand Russell, Jean Piaget, Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul
Sartre and Ernst Bloch. In Sicily, Leonardo Sciascia advocated many of the ideas espoused by Dolci. Dolci was twice married and had several children. Sicilian Lives remains his best known book, while one of the best biographical works about him is American author Gerry Magione's A Passion
In a society plagued by a general lack of trust and honesty, Danilo Dolci's greatest gift was the hope he brought to those whose lives he touched. He organized unions, promoted education and, most importantly, taught people to believe in themselves.
Dolci actively fought to assist victims of the 1968 earthquake which destroyed
much of the Belice Valley; the funds for relief and reconstruction were
siphoned off by greedy administrators, and "Belice" has since become
an Italian by-word for political corruption. Some of Dolci's later initiatives
were less successful than others, often bordering on the intangible. His center
sought to produce evidence against a secret NATO submarine base off the
Sicilian coast on the basis that such an installation required Italian approval
and control which in this case was apparently granted covertly to the United States Navy.
The older problems, of course, never went away. Eventually, the Mafia was recognized by the Italian government as the criminal phenomenon that it is. Admittedly, it has evolved considerably, being less rustic and more administrative ("white collar") now than it was in the 1950s, but today Italian penal law actually uses the
word "Mafia" to describe Sicilian organized crime. The Sicilian
economy has improved somewhat; the towns boast paved roads and other modern
"amenities," even if unemployment and under-employment remain
high. Much of this progress is owed to the lifelong efforts of Danilo Dolci
and his dedicated collaborators. The man who in youth studied architecture had become the architect of social change.
About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.